The “Working Vacation” or How I Briefly Escape From Insanity

I'm on a slow retreat, one in which I escape--although not completely--from the working world. I'm taking a long weekend in Catalina, off the coast of southern California, to spend time with my family, catch up on writing, and slow down on the work-crazy that sometimes takes hold. (Okay, fine, it takes hold all the time.) I'm grateful, excited, and so joyful to be pausing for a minute to let my writing, reading, and exercise dreams expand to fill the day in its entirety. I am thankful that I can do this... in fact: I really could get used to this... 

What is a working vacation? Sounds miserable, you might think. I'll try to explain...

A working vacation

This morning, I got a note from a colleague, for whom I'm working on a presentation outline. I sent her a brief note that I'd be delayed in my presentation outline, asking if she would mind if I got it to her next week--and I confided that I was taking a working retreat to vacation and regroup, and to spend some time writing and observing. I worried for a bit that she would be upset by my lack of work ethic, by my missing the deadline--all worries I made up in my mind, naturally. Yet instead, she wrote back:

"Enjoy the space between work and leisure--it is a great place to work on big ideas. I'm looking forward to seeing yours."

I couldn't have said it better myself. It's not about not working, per se, but taking myself out of context of everyday work, back and forth, to explore, dream, reflect, and think big. It's when I play big, a phrase that Tara Mohr talks about, which I LOVE. It's when I have the AH-HA! moments on the top of the mountain, when I shake off the insecurities and the banalities, when the frivolities of life ungrip themselves from my psyche, when I find that I'm no longer scurrying around in a HUGE FAT HURRY, cracked out on adrenaline and worried about getting everything done. In it, I realize that, YES, YES, I want to be working on these things, YES, what I'm doing is fun, and wow--my job is cool. More than that: what I dream of, create in my own space--these are projects worth pursuing.

Taking time off is so important as part of my process that I'm certain I wouldn't be capable of the work that I do without regular, intermittent breaks. I've written about how the strict 9-5 doesn't make sense to me, and I still agree: you need to work in the way conducive to greatness, not in a way prescribed by archaic remnants of past industrial societies.

I confess, too, that I sometimes hate posting the routine pictures on social networks of the "vacation," where I look like I'm doing nothing all day, because it doesn't capture, for me, what a working vacation really is. I'm as guilty as the rest of us (Oh, how I love photographs and pinning things on pinterest!) But I digress. I vacation. I retreat. 

It's about big ideas. It's about balancing movement and reflection with learning, consumption, and creation. And here on the island, scribbling in my notebooks, I wrote this in a long-form message to one of my friends: "I like to 'fill up' from inputs  such as reading, people, learning, studying, and then LOVE taking time to process, reflect, and percolate... mostly outside, in this crazy-beautiful world we get to live in."

Because it is crazy-beautiful. We shouldn't miss it with our heads down, cramming behind desks, adrenaline surging from the latest reprimand or arbitrary deadline.

No. It's not about this.

It's about taking time to live the balance that I crave, and really put into practice, now, the ability to be flexible, to work from anywhere, to change it up, to produce, create, and enjoy. To create moments of wonder and awe, and balance and love. To live.

How to take a working vacation

A working vacation, my definition: Taking a leave of absence from your current life and packing only the components that you want to bring, in order to be productive, inspired, relaxed, and restored.

Here are some rough notes about a working vacation--what I do, and why it works for me.

Leave your current context. Find somewhere new to go and set up shop. Go somewhere new. Some weekends in San Francisco, I'll take a "writing vacation" and unplug from the internet, hole up in a favorite coffeeshop with my laptop, and work three back-to-back four-hour stints and just read, write, and write. The last time I did this, I wrote more than 15,000 words in a weekend. Exhausting? Yes. Exhiliarating? Completely.

Spend more than half the day away from the screen. For the better part of ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY, computers and sitting have not been a part of it. The greatest thing about vacation is that the computer seems less important, less toxic and controlling. Somehow, in the sounds of the rolling ocean and the vistas on the mountains behind me, the computer seems somewhat small and unimportant. I can't help but get up and move around throughout the day. In an office, my patterns and habits become ingrained, and I forget that 10+ hours a day at a desk is not healthy or sane.

Find things to say No to. I'm on vacation from my full-time job--yes, vacation hours were used--and I told my colleagues I'd be in email contact for a few hours a day, but put up a vacation responder to remind folks that I'd be mostly out of touch. My personal rule? No more than 2 hours of work-related tasks per day. When you're in the middle of coordinating big projects and deadlines, and pushing ideas forward, it can be hard to leave and carve out time for other projects. Sometimes it seems impossible. For me, the most important thing is leaving my desk behind and being clear on communication with my team that I'll start back up again when I return next week.

Okay, so you should also plan a little in advance. It's helpful for me to plan in advance (cue: when responding to people and coordinating life and projects, include a line that says, "I'll be out of touch until Monday, but I can get back to you next week"). When saying No to things, I cue people in to when I'll be available so I don't leave projects or teams hanging.

Pack only what you really want to bring. This is critical. Leave the crap behind. Go on a vacation from obligation. Leave your unfound worries at home. Shirk some of your responsibilities, if you can. I said "No" to several projects and put them on hiatus to make space for other projects to have the full attention of my day. Often, I get so buried in the menial tasks related to organizing things and people, that I forget to carve out time for idea generation and creation. I set up an auto-repsonder on my main email accounts related to work and duties, and said no to bringing obsessive email with me. Instead, I packed 7 books I want to enjoy reading by the oceanside, a notebook with outlines for book ideas I have, a list of essays I'm working on, and two binders with my current projects that I want to catch up on.

Set goals. I love small time frames with clear goals. Even some weekends "Have no goals, except enjoy yourself!" This weekend, there are three big projects that I'm working on that I need to make space for, and have been impossible to finish in the wee hours of the night when I get home from my full-time job. Design projects; writing ideals; unfinished essays. When I started this long weekend, I set a project goal for each day, outlining the three major milestones I want to accomplish while here. Will I go on long bike rides? Absolutely. Jump in the ocean? (Um, have you met me?) Will I spend an hour in the jacuzzi bouncing ideas around late at night with my family? Of course. This is all part of it. And for several hours in the mornings and again post-dinner, I'll be tackling these big projects because I want to. And I can.

Move. I have a personal head-over-heels relationship with fitness, movement, dancing, prancing, swimming, running, and all things movement. I think our bodies are marvelous, wonderful things, and the greatest sin of our lives is to waste them away by sitting behind screens. Vacations should be rejuvenating to the mind, soul, and BODY. Get out for a slow hike, a walk, a stretch, a paddle, a jog. My dad calls his running "happy trotting," -- this is your happy pace. Your place where it's comfortable and fun, and where you walk when you want to walk and stop when you want to stop. But by all means, move.

But don't take my word for it--Richard Branson says the most important thing he's done for all of his productivity and success is to work out every day. Countless articles on fitness and health say that moving, walking, standing, stretching and meditation are world-changing for your productivity, success, and long-term health. One of my favorite outdoor fitness programs in San Francisco talks about why movement is important for life: "When people start to move around with others every day, they start to get a sense of what they're capable of and what they're built for." Yes.

Make a dedication. On this island, the sun rises in the east over the Pacific, a luxury not experienced on the mainland of the States. When I wake up in the morning, I walk outside and greet the sun and the day, sleepy-eyed, in my pajamas, and I make a dedication to myself, to this process, to the projects, and remember how grateful I am to be doing all that I am doing. It involves a big stretch, some toe-touches, and a happy smile, among other things. This weekend, I'm dedicating to observing, watching, and rejuvenating my creative spirit by balancing playfulness with ample time for creation.

On a personal note, my goal is to write at least 1000 words every day in March, mostly short stories and explorations. I've been remiss in writing lately and it affects everything else I do. Or, as this excellent NPR article covered earlier this week--what you're holding in your unconscious brain is actually killing you. Let it out. Take this as a cue that writing soothes and restores your soul and keeps you healthy. It's not a hobby. It's a necessity.

Hopefully these notes help you. Sometimes a weekend away, a day off, is really what your soul needs. Listen.

End note: Don't miss out, or When I give in, I lose. 

I'll close with a short story that crossed my mind while climbing up a hill earlier today on a big bike--a two hour hill that challenged my leg strength quite a bit. It was 3 PM in the afternoon, and I was a bit weary of reading and writing, and the lazy slump of post-afternoon stress started to inhabit my mind. I hadn't worked out that well in a few days and my cells were starting to feel sluggish, lazy, full and fat with unused glucose molecules. I looked at the couch. I could just sit here for a while... I thought to myself. I had told Carol that I'd go on a big bike ride with her in the afternoon. My mind said, you know, you could just do it tomorrow.

But I knew, somehow, that I had wanted to do the ride, and that I would still like to do it. But getting over the sluggish me is not easy.

I should go, I thought reluctantly. Carol quipped: Stop thinking! Let's just go! So I put on my helmet and we started up the hill. Yes, it was hard. And then, within thirty minutes, we pulled around the corner of the first hill and I saw this:

I grinned. I realized that I had, once again, almost canceled on a beautiful ride because I was afraid of a little hard work. We continued up the hill. How could I have missed this? Skipping out on a little hard work--a tough hour on the bike, pedalling, something which we are all capable of, and missing out on the views, fresh air, sunshine, and satisfaction? My brain is crazy! She is crazy, I tell you! And I realized:

In general, if I talk myself out of doing something, I like myself a little bit less.

Every time I concede to the monkey brain, I lose.
My brain is wired to keep me safe, to protect me from danger, to want to fit in with the crowd. It wants me to keep me from hard things. I have to fight this.
Because doing things, exploring, creating--this is life's meaning.
Living with others, loving, having meaningful relationships. This is it.

So fuck the monkey brain. Do it anyways. It doesn't know what it's talking about all the time.
There's a lot waiting for you if you'll let go of the nerves, reluctance and fear.
And if you skip out on an opportunity, you lose.  

If I listened to it unwaveringly, I would miss out on so many opportunities for wonder, growth, and exploration.

To live is to work, and to love.

Paraphrasing the distinguished quantum physicist, Freeman Dyson, in an article from the Economist:

"To be healthy means to love and to work. Both activities are good for the soul, and one of them also helps to pay for the groceries."

Yes.


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7 Responses to The “Working Vacation” or How I Briefly Escape From Insanity

  1. Jenny says:

    Thank you. I really enjoy your posts and you make me feel like I can do it too.
    All the best, Jenny

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Jenny! You can do anything :) It may take a while, be full of “hard” and sometimes seem crappy, but you can really do anything if you give yourself enough patience, love, and determination.

  2. Jen Gresham says:

    Really enjoyed your perspective on this. I could use it (no, I NEED it) and haven’t found a way to do it yet. My calendar now gets booked a month in advance, and while I have vacations in there, they are my daughter’s vacations, not mine. But…this has given me an idea of how to make one work, maybe this summer, or maybe sooner, though it would have to be without the hubs, which I don’t really like to do. Thanks for getting me thinking!

    • Sarah says:

      Jen, I hear you. I’ve actually been trying to plan this since November. I was traveling nonstop all of December, working like crazy in January, and mid-January I placed a plea-like phone call to my family and said “I really REALLY need to get out of this rut for a while. Any chance I can pack up my laptop and come down for a week in the next month or so?” So sometimes … it takes time!

      And this is my way of being able to prioritize rest and recovery while also acknowledging that sometimes it’s not possible to quite turn off fully. I’m still working half-days, but the fact that I can go for a run and a swim in the afternoon, and then take a half-hour nap, makes the work part of the day actually quite enjoyable.

      Hope you get to take a little break soon. It’s worth it.

  3. Janae says:

    I’ve only just started reading your blog, but I truly appreciate it.

    And thanks for the link to the Economist article! What a simple, fantastic man.

  4. [...] How To: The “working vacation” or how I briefly escape from insanity, by Sarah Peck – “It’s not about not working, per se, but taking myself out of [...]

  5. Dave Walsh says:

    Thanks for the new mantra: Fuck the monkey brain! I love it, keep writing. Dave

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